Jack Johnson’s first album in four years finds the singer-songwriter in a more content and musically diverse mood.
September 17th? What the hell, Jack?
After trying and failing to enjoy 2010’s snoozefest To The Sea, I began to wonder if Jack Johnson’s mojo had finally run out. He’d created some of the most memorable mellow rock of the 2000’s–especially his 2005 coffeehouse classic, In Between Dreams–but you can hear his songwriting sails start to flap at the midpoint of his next album, Sleep Through The Static. Seeing him live that summer pretty much confirmed the thought: while everything sounded perfectly enjoyable, the band seemed oddly lifeless, as if they were playing the background music to their own show. Jack took four years of downtime since that album, playing mainly outdoor summer shows and focusing on his nonprofit. And then he had to go and release his return to form a full two weeks after summer’s ended.
The recharge time seems to have been worth it: From Here To Now To You is Jack’s best full album since In Between Dreams. The leadoff track and single “I Got You” is as infectious as any song in his entire discography, with a whistled melody that should be bottled and sold. “Radiate” shines with a special warmth like a song about the sun should. The chorus of “Never Fade” gets into a groove that rolls along like ocean waves…wait.
I’ve got to stop with the similes for a second and say something before you stop reading.
There’s been so much reinforcement of Jack’s surfer persona that he’s practically become a parody of himself (for confirmation, watch the delightful video for “I Got You”). A general mood has arisen that renders write-ups like this one kind of irrelevant–you already know what to generally expect from a Jack Johnson album and you already know if you’re going to listen to it or not. When I talk about a “darker” album or whatever, it’s not like he’s suddenly going to veer off in a direction that legitimately puzzles his listeners.
So with that said, this album isn’t a retread of his past stylings so much as a refinement. It’s also his happiest tunes in a long while. (His last two records were written in the wake of his cousin and father passing away, respectively.) You can practically hear Jack smiling and swaying through the first four tracks, and the whimsical standout “Tape Deck” sounds like something he wrote simply–this is important–to please himself. This new sense of contentment or time off or healthier breakfast or whatever it is infuses these songs with the life that his music has been missing for a while.
There’s a lot of variety within the record as well, which makes for a much more interesting close listen. Glockenspeil, Wurlitzer piano, and melodica all make appearances, as he incorporates an increasing array of sounds from his previous albums into From Here To Now To You. He plays a lot more with musical style as well, as if he has a steadier eye on how the new songs will fit into his live show. The interlude-esque “You Remind Me Of You” has elements of Tin Pan Alley in its vocal walk down, the harder folk of “Ones And Zeros” is pretty surprising, and Jack invites his friend Ben Harper to play some great slide guitar on “Change”.
If there’s a weak point in the album, it’s definitely in the lyrics. Jack’s never been held up as a prime example of lyrical depth, but in his previous work he’s surprised me with surprisingly poignant details and cast-offs. The man’s always been a beach philosophizer, which makes it disappointing that he’s more “sandbar” deep than “ocean” deep on this album. He still knows how to turn a phrase from time to time, though, as evidenced by lines like “heaven was a place still in space, not emotion” and that Fugazi line in “Tape Deck” that makes me laugh every time I hear it.
Sometimes you get what you want, but not exactly when you want it. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter that Jack Johnson released From Here To Now To You in mid-September. HIs music has always been seasonal. As the rolling guitars of “Home” fade away into the sound of Hawaii’s rolling waves, I know that I’ll be playing this album whenever the sun’s shining and the water’s warm.
Favorite Tracks: “Tape Deck”, “I Got You”, “Never Fade”
P.S. I want to take a moment to recognize how gorgeous that cover art looks. Jack’s always had a great eye for striking and colorful album art, but this might be the best encapsulation of his “vibe” yet.